The first summit between President Trump and Chairman Kim last June in Singapore was a success in terms of being the first ever meeting between the serving leaders of the U.S. and North Korea. However, the resulting joint statement lacked substance and was more a vague rehashing of previous commitments rather than something concrete that the parties could practically work towards – namely denuclearization and establishing a peace regime.
Over eight months on from the previous summit,
this time it is necessary to have more substance to any agreement if the summit
in Vietnam can be claimed to be a success.
One of the major challenges faced is that there
is no agreed roadmap with a clear time plan between the main parties. Whereas
the U.S. has demanded North Korea’s complete denuclearization before lifting
sanctions or signing a peace treaty, Pyongyang favors an action-for-action
approach in which both sides move together by trading corresponding measures.
This difference in approach has led to a stalemate
It would appear, however, that the U.S. has signaled
a shift in approach somewhat. In a speech at Stanford University on January 31,
the U.S. special representative to North Korea Stephen
Biegun acknowledged that it was not the case that Washington would
“do nothing” until Pyongyang “did everything.” He further articulated how a
peace treaty and full denuclearization would be the end goals of any process.
Realizing that a full and comprehensive
settlement is out of reach in the short term, what then could be the outcome of
any deal signed in Vietnam?
North Korea is ready to reduce, or maybe even limit,
its ability to further develop nuclear weapons. As made clear by Kim Jong
Un in his New Year’s Speech, it is clear that North Korea is willing
not to test, make, use, or proliferate nuclear weapons.
But while having committed on paper to “complete
denuclearization,” absent from this pledge is mention of North Korea’s existing
stockpile of weapons. Indeed, without far reaching security guarantees and
political and economic normalization, it is highly unlikely – if ever – that
full and irreversible denuclearization is achievable in the foreseeable future.
Indeed, its nuclear arsenal fulfills a crucial component its security strategy.
Furthermore, increasing divisions between China, the
U.S., South Korea, Russia, and Japan has increased the maneuvering space for
North Korea in which it no longer faces a coordinated policy of “maximum
Notwithstanding, it appears likely that North Korea
could propose to shutter its main nuclear fissile production center at Yongbyon
(and potentially other research installations) – a willingness it expressed
already in the Pyongyang Declaration between the two Koreas last September. It
could also offer to demolish some of the known missile test launch sites and
commit to international inspections of such.
A more remote possibility is that North Korea could
commit to a reduction of or even destruction of its long-range missiles
suspected of being able to hit the U.S. mainland – which is of direct concern
to Washington, even if its regional allies would be alarmed that focus on such
would leave its other missile capabilities intact.
In any case, it would appear unlikely that North Korea
will agree to declare a full list of its nuclear and missile programs together
with the locations of relevant facilities – as demanded by the U.S.
But should North Korea agree to some of the more
modest denuclearization measures above, what might it demand in return?
North Korea is likely to demand a peace treaty, or at
the very least an “end of war declaration” or normalization agreement
(including potentially establishing liaison offices in each other’s capitals).
The U.S. could potentially agree to the latter two, but the practical
implications of such would depend on the details of any agreement.
The U.S. military presence in and around the Korean
Peninsula has always been a major concern for North Korea. But suspension or downscaling
of military exercises aside, it is largely unthinkable that any substantial
changes to the U.S.-South Korea alliance or full-scale drawdown of troops will
Lifting of sanctions is likely to be another core
demand. Yet, viewed as an important tool of leverage over North Korea, any
significant rolling back of sanctions by the U.S. is unrealistic. Any such move
would also encounter stiff resistance
in Congress among other quarters.
It is more likely that Trump, by signaling willingness
to grant certain sanctions waivers, will open up space for discussions between
South and North Korea on economic cooperation, as well as possibly provision of
greater humanitarian aid to North Korea and discussions with the IMF and other
In sum, there is all the potential of Trump touting
the summit as having reached the “best agreement ever.” But in reality, the
devil will be in the detail of what, how, and when it will be implemented. Without
a clear roadmap with a timeframe and a stronger sense of trust between the actors,
the actual impact will most likely be modest even this time. This said, the
engagement between the leaders has its own importance and increased contacts
between U.S. and North Korean government officials could lead to increased
trust and real working-level progress – a precondition for what is likely to be
a long and arduous process ahead.